US opposes European plan to censure Iran over nuclear work

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei viewing a model of a nuclear facility in Tehran in 2023. PHOTO: OFFICE OF THE IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER/WANA/REUTERS
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei viewing a model of a nuclear facility in Tehran in 2023. PHOTO: OFFICE OF THE IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER/WANA/REUTERS

Summary

Washington is pressing European countries not to stoke tension with Iran at a coming U.N. atomic agency meeting.

BERLIN—The Biden administration is pressing European allies to back off plans to rebuke Iran for advances in its nuclear program as it seeks to keep tensions with Tehran from escalating before the autumn’s U.S. presidential election, according to diplomats involved in discussions.

The U.S. is arguing against an effort by Britain and France to censure Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s member state board in early June, the diplomats said. The U.S. has pressed a number of other countries to abstain in a censure vote, saying that is what Washington will do, they said.

U.S. officials deny lobbying against a resolution.

The differences are emerging as Western officials’ concerns have deepened about Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran has enough highly enriched fissile material for three nuclear weapons, according to IAEA data.

Some U.S. officials say they fear Iran could be more volatile as the country moves toward elections for a new leader after the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash earlier this month. The Biden administration has long said it is seeking a diplomatic solution on Iran’s nuclear program.

European diplomats have warned that failure to take action would undermine the authority of the IAEA, which polices nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. They say it also weakens the credibility of Western pressure on Iran. And they are frustrated over what they see as U.S. efforts to undermine their approach.

A U.S. official said Washington is “tightly coordinated" with its European partners ahead of the IAEA board meeting next month: “Any speculation about decisions is premature."

“We are increasing pressure on Iran through sanctions and international isolation," the official added, citing measures taken by the Group of Seven advanced democracies after an Iranian missile and drone attack on Israel last month.

A second U.S. official said it was “totally false" that Washington is aiming to avoid disruption with Iran before the U.S. elections.

The IAEA board last passed a resolution rebuking Iran in November 2022. U.S. and European officials in Vienna have repeatedly warned since then that they would take action if Tehran didn’t rein in its nuclear advances and step up cooperation with the agency.

At the heart of the dispute are ongoing concerns in some European countries, particularly France and Britain, that Washington lacks a strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear advances. European diplomats have said that the Biden administration appears unwilling to either pursue a serious diplomatic effort with Iran or take punitive actions against Tehran’s nuclear transgressions.

The Europeans were strong supporters of the 2015 nuclear deal, which lifted most international sanctions on Iran in exchange for tight but temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work. Europe sought to preserve the accord after the Trump administration exited it in 2018.

The Biden administration set revival of the nuclear agreement as a top foreign policy goal when it took office. But talks collapsed in August 2022 when Iran hardened its demands. Since then, U.S. officials have sought to contain tensions with Iran.

U.S. officials argue that Europe could do more to increase pressure on Iran, including cutting off Iranian banks that work on the continent and listing Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror group. They note they have coordinated sanctions efforts with Europe against Iran over its missile and drone transfers.

Washington has its own strategy for raising pressure on Iran over its nuclear activities, which includes asking the IAEA to prepare a comprehensive report setting out everything it knows about Iran’s failure to cooperate.

While a report would have no automatic consequences, a similar effort in 2011 focused international attention on Tehran’s nuclear buildup, generating momentum for international sanctions on Iran.

U.S. officials say if Iran doesn’t change direction, such a report could build the case for a snapback of international sanctions lifted under the nuclear deal, which is an option that expires in October 2025. European officials say they have been told Washington is considering asking the agency to present such a report after U.S. elections in November but has no immediate plans to request it.

Iran is already effectively a threshold nuclear state, and there are growing Western worries it could seek to become a nuclear-weapon state.

In addition to accumulating highly enriched uranium, Iranian officials have suggested Tehran has mastered the process of building a nuclear weapon. Others have suggested that Tehran could reverse Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s ban on weapons of mass destruction.

Iran insists its nuclear program is for civilian purposes. The U.S. intelligence community and the IAEA say they have no evidence that Tehran is building a nuclear weapon. Tehran started expanding its nuclear program after the U.S. pulled out of the nuclear deal.

Iran has reduced the IAEA’s oversight of its nuclear program and for years stonewalled an agency probe into undeclared nuclear material found in recent years in Iran.

A censure resolution at the IAEA Board can open the way to pushing Iran’s alleged noncompliance on nuclear issues to the U.N. Security Council for an international response.

Tehran has repeatedly escalated its nuclear program or taken fresh action to limit inspectors’ access in recent years when it has come under Western pressure over its nuclear program at the IAEA meetings. Last year, after facing verbal criticism at the board, it banned a number of experienced European inspectors from the country.

The U.S. fears a repeat of those kinds of steps if a censure motion goes through.

The administration is also skeptical that a formal rebuke will achieve anything. Even if Iran’s nuclear work is eventually pushed up to the U.N. Security Council, it would likely be doomed there. Russia and China, who hold veto power at the U.N., would almost certainly veto any attempt to sanction Tehran for its activities.

This time, British and French officials have told Washington they want to press ahead with a censure resolution, saying it was time to draw a line, according to people involved in discussions.

Whether the Europeans actually would do that is unclear. If they proposed a censure motion that failed, it would be a major diplomatic coup for Tehran, suggesting Western pressure on Iran was crumbling.

The U.S. has pushed against a censure resolution at the IAEA ahead of other recent board meetings, but past disagreements over how to handle Iran’s nuclear work have largely stayed between Washington and the Europeans.

However, at the last board meeting in March, Washington’s ambassador to the IAEA, Laura Holgate, warned that Iranian noncooperation with the agency couldn’t be allowed to continue.

“Iran’s level of cooperation with the agency remains unacceptable," she said at the last meeting of the IAEA board. “The board must be prepared to take further action should Iran’s cooperation not improve dramatically."

Earlier this month, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi traveled to Iran to try to improve cooperation, calling for Tehran to take concrete deliverable steps before the June board meeting to show its good intention. No such steps have been taken, and diplomats in Vienna say they don’t immediately expect any.

In a bid to contain flashpoints, U.S. officials earlier this month held their first discussions since January with Iranian officials in Oman. The indirect talks, which involved Omani officials going back and forth between the sides, touched on regional and nuclear issues, according to people briefed on discussions.

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said a censure resolution would help set out a record of Iranian noncompliance that could ultimately lead to a snapback of international sanctions.

Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said a censure was overdue but that it should be tied with a diplomatic effort to rein in Iran’s nuclear program for sanctions relief.

“The board needs to send a message to Iran that there are consequences for stonewalling," she said. “But it needs to be part of a broader strategy. The goal should be pressuring and incentivizing Iran to cooperate with the IAEA and expand their access."

Michael R. Gordon contributed to this article

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

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